Bełżec - Cementery Memorial

The sculpture expresses the cold and ruthless force of this site on the border of life and death.
Space, sculpture, architecture. The unity of the arts. The memorial in the former Nazi death camp in Belżec, located to the south-west of Tomaszow Lubelski, is gravely impressive. Quite possibly, this is the most successful memorial since the construction of the Treblinka monument. In the artistic sense, the most interesting and forceful monuments have been built in the former Nazi death camps. In both these cases the scale is gigantic, but the artistic language reserved, free of naive statuary or „God and Motherland" symbols. It uses the carefully shaped space, acts upon the subconscious.
introduces deep symbolism, creates the atmosphere of concentration which affects even the raucous teenage groups. In June 1940, a Nazi work camp, later transformed into a death camp was established on six hectares of land in Belżec. From mid-March 1942 to December 1942, over six hundred thousand people were murdered here, mostly Jews brought from ghettoes in Southern Poland, and other countries such as Bohemia and Germany. Also Roma were transported here, as well Poles charged with helping Jews. To the historians' best knowledge, only two people ever succeeded in escaping the camp. In order to obliterate all traces of their crime, a few years later the Nazis burned the bodies they exhumed from mass graves, and poured ashes into ditches, covering them with a layer of soil. They also demolished the gas chambers, leveled the site, and partly planted it with trees, partly used for agriculture. The memorial was constructed according to a design which won the 1997 competition. It was designed by Andrzej Sołyga and his team, sculptors of the memorial in Katyń and other sites. The sculptor invited the architects from the renowned DDJM practice in Krakow to collaborate in the museum building design, and sculptor Mirostaw Nizio's team to design a small-scale museum exhibition inside. The three elements: the monument, the museum building and the exhibition make up one integral whole. By the road leading from Tomasz6w to the border pass in Hrebenne, just behind the railroad sidings, one notices a forested mound. The victims ashes were deposited right there.
A gigantic rectangle of several hectares is the cemetery proper, but with no tombs; instead, it is wholly topped by a layer of specially prepared material—blast furnace slag mixed with cinders and barren soil—which constitutes a black blot in the green Roztocze Lubelskie countryside. The former mass graves are marked only by the shapes of differently graded material on their surface. From a distance, the large slag lumps look like vandalized Jewish headstones. The bleak burial ground with solitary oaks growing here and there is movingly desolate.
The designers used simple but powerful and innovative formal solutions. One of them is the form of the museum building, only two meters high, designed by DDJM. It was located just next to the former railroad ramp; its severe form of a concrete block divided by cast iron belts symbolizes cattle trains in which the victims had been transported. Right next to it, railroad ties with rails, piled up like a funeral pyre, form a sculptural installation. The Crevice/Way runs along the main axis of the entire layout, from the Ramp across the Cemetery-Burial Ground Point of Crossing Square; it plunges gradually into the mound with the death field, till it reaches the depth of nine meters in the focal point of the memorial. The Crevice May, paved with the original historic stones is the symbol of the last way of the doomed. Following it, the visitors participate in the martyrdom. They disappear in the mound just like the people murdered here disappeared from the world of the living. The impression is enhanced by the walls lining the road, constructed according to the no-formwork metod used for cavity walls-when the earth was removed, a characteristic concrete texture remained—and the intertwined reinforcing rods above them, as well as specific acoustics. The road goes up to the Stone Wall made of monumental light-hued granite blocks. The stone was worked with cuts and notches in a way suggesting it is dripping with blood. It may evoke associations with the Warsaw houses, against which the Nazis were shooting people in street executions, rather than with a death camp. A polished concrete surface located opposite and covered with names of victims-Jewish, Polish
and German—resembles the Umschlagplatz monument in ul. Stawki in Warsaw. One cannot expect, however, all member parts of the memorial to be innovative and unique. The rectangle of the former camp was surrounded by a belt called the Stone Pyre by the designers. It is a low wall, no higher than fifty centimetres in the highest spot, with the names of Jewish communes written in Yiddish and Polish along the inner edge of the concrete surface. The names are in a chronological order, reflecting the sequence of transports.
The museum building is sited at the right angle to the main entrance; it is also a wall separating the Cemetery Memorial from the railroad tracks and the village. It is not a standard museum but a building/sculipture. Sunk in the ground, only two meters high, windowless and intersected by the entrance in the middle, it does not hide the cemetery mound from Belżec. The building, a smooth rectangular mass, has no architectural details. Equally ascetic is the interior with the exhibition hall, cloakrooms, restrooms and a concert hall. One end of the building is taken up by a large, quite dark, reinforce-concrete Void Hall. The terse form of the memorial is much more impressive than many museums although in order to comprehend the symbols one needs to have some basic knowledge of history, because its force lies in associations. There are no redundant details; architectural expression relies on scale and austerity. For numerous visitors to the Belżec camp, and young people in particular, the museum exhibition is more understandable. Mirostaw Nizio who had designed the exhibition in the Warsaw Uprising Museum, combined the traditional strong means of expression such as boxes with clothes, panels, photographs and stone blocks with inscriptions, with the twenty-first century technology. Young people stop in front of plasma monitors inserted in rusted frames and learn about the history of the Holocaust. The Butcher of Belżec, living in some quiet spot after the war, does not want to remember anything. A woman from an assimilated Jewish family tells about her ghetto experience. Letters from the ghetto make for some compulsive and terrifying reading.
In 1958, when an international competition for the monument in Auschwitz-Birkenau was announced, the outstanding architect Oskar Hansen together with artists Jerzy Jarnuszewski and Julian Patka proposed a memorial in the form of a Monument of the Way. A clear diagonal line cutting across the death camp was a symbolic protest against the atrocities committed on this site. Such a solution, however, was too avant-garde for those times. Forty years later, a similar formal idea, although clothed in a different architectural form and with other symbolic content. returned in the Belżec memorial.
Jerzy S. Majewski